Living off the grid with Alden and Mari

Sustainable Energy Superstars – Off the Grid with Alden and Mari

We had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Alden and Mari back in June. Upon our arrival at the Trescotts, they let us know that if we had time they could also take us out to see a fully off-the-grid home owned by their good friends Alden and Mari.

Of course, we weren’t going to pass up that opportunity and we were so glad that we didn’t.

Alden and Mari live in a beautifully secluded area near Blountville AL, and like the Trescotts they offer their home as part of the annual Solar Home Tour each October. If you’d like to see what solar living is all about, we’d definitely suggest that you check this tour out.

Living off the grid with Alden and Mari

Alden and Mari's Off the Grid home - Alden and Mari’s home is not only 100% off the grid, but it’s also simply beautiful inside and out. They built the home out of straw-bale construction, with stucco walls and used trees that they cut from the land where they built their home. In addition to being solar-powered, they also collect and filter rain water for all of their water needs.

You might wonder “is it safe to drink?” The answer is quite simply, of course it is! In fact, it’s possible that their water is better filtered than the water you buy in the store.

Alden and Mari’ chose to live off the grid because of their desire to live a completely sustainable lifestyle. However, that their home is almost a half mile from the nearest road certainly helped their decision. In the end it was cheaper to be off-the-grid than to pay to have lines run.

This passive-solar home was built in 1996/97. Alden and Mari designed and constructed their home (from the roof/ceilings to the walls, windows, and floors) to collect, store, and distribute solar energy in the form of heat in the winter, and to reject that same solar heat in the summer. When we walked into the home on an extremely warm June day, it felt more comfortable than my home.

In addition to the straw bale construction covered with stucco, the home also features:

  • South-facing super-insulated windows for solar gain and light
  • A large sunroom
  • A wood stove that heats the entire home
  • A solar-powered 1-ton air conditioner – they installed this later to reduce humidity.
  • ENERGY STAR rated appliances and LED lights
  • Vermicomposting and thermal composting
  • Rainwater collection for home, garden, and orchard use
  • Gravity-fed pond for drip irrigation
  • Well-water backup (just in case we have a year-long dry spell)

 

chickensThe home is 100% solar-powered. There is no backup generator. Power is stored during the day for use at night. Their water is heated using excess electricity.

If you haven’t guess yet, Alden is an engineer; he built his system and even built an extremely high-efficiency refrigerator and freezer inside an insulated cold room. In addition to how beautiful their home is inside, the outside views were amazing. The home is surrounded by their organic gardens and orchard, and sits on a hill providing an amazing view for miles. They share their home with a variety of pets and food-producers (a dog, chickens, ducks, and geese).

If you have the opportunity in October to attend the Solar Home Tour, you won’t be disappointed to experience this home or to meet Alden and Mari.

UAH AEE Student Chapter Installs Solar Panels to Golf Cart

Last week, The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) student chapter outfitted a golf cart with solar panels, making the vehicle virtually maintenance free. The event served as a kickoff for the AEE student chapter to raise awareness among the UAH community about sustainable energy.

“Working with UAH students is easily the best part of my job! They come up with crazy fun ideas like these and make them happen. It really encourages me that these students will be the ones leading Alabama to sustainable energy future,” said Daniel Tait, CEO of Energy Alabama.

To read the full article, please visit: http://www.uah.edu/news/campus/uah-aee-student-chapter-installs-solar-panels-to-golf-cart

Birmingham Alabama Skyline

SB220 Passed! – What it Means

Alabama Senate Bill 220 passed the House and Senate on June 4th, 2015 and became law when Gov. Robert Bentley signed it on June 12th, 2015. Sounds great! Right??? Here’s what it means.

What is SB220?

Quite simply SB220 allows any improvement district (think downtown redevelopment authority) and municipalities (think counties and cities) to create a property assessed clean energy (PACE) program. SB220 primarily focuses on upgrades to existing real property (non-residential) to improve its resilience to storm-related events such as high winds and flooding. Energy efficiency and renewable energy are included in this definition.

What is PACE?

PACE is a simple and effective way to finance energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades to buildings that are repaid through a small increase in property taxes. PACE can pay for new heating and cooling systems, lighting improvements, solar panels, water pumps, insulation, and many other efficiency and resiliency improvements for almost any property – homes, commercial, industrial, non-profit, and agricultural.

Why is PACE a good thing?

PACE is effective because the money for an improvement project is typically borrowed from a governmental authority and comes with a low interest rate and a long payback period. These two things taken in concert allow many more projects to become good economic deals.

Think about this hypothetical example. You run a small local restaurant and your heating and cooling system dies. Even your cheapest quotes come in at over $6,000 and those units aren’t even energy-efficient! That’s a ton of money and you may not have the cash to pay for it. In a normal world you’d go to your bank to get a loan or put it on your company credit card.

Without PACE – Bank Loan

  • $6,000 loan
  • 5 year repayment period
  • 6% interest
  • = $116.00 monthly payment

Without PACE – Credit Card

  • $6,000 loan
  • 5 year repayment period
  • 17% interest
  • =$149.00 monthly payment

With PACE

  • $7,500 loan
  • 15 year repayment period
  • 3% interest
  • =$51.79 monthly payment

Under this example you’d be able to buy the much more efficient heating and cooling unit for at least half the monthly payment! You might be able to even add air sealing, insulation, solar or other upgrades and still have a cheaper monthly payment. We’d guess that you think PACE is a good idea!

Keep in mind that SB220 only authorizes this type of program for commercial buildings; but, hopefully future legislation will bring this option to residential property owners as well. The more Alabama businesses that complete upgrades through a PACE program, the more money they can reinvest in their business further stimulating the local economy. Also, these business are likely to experience less down-time or disruption should a natural disaster hit.

When will PACE come to Alabama?

Well…. that’s a good question. SB220 is only what is considered ‘enabling legislation’. It doesn’t actually create a PACE program but simply allows local governments and improvement districts to do so. Now we wait for the first municipality in Alabama to jump on it AND a state agency to be given oversight authority. Since the legislation was born out of South Alabama and originally intended for natural disaster resiliency, we’d put our bet on a city like Mobile. Of course we could be wrong! If you would like us to work with your city to implement PACE, let us know!

UAH Students Install Solar Panel to School Golf Cart

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – A University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) golf cart will never need to be plugged in again. Some young minds outfitted it with solar panels so it gets natural — and free — energy to power it.

With help from Energy Alabama, the golf cart is the only one being outfitted — for now. The team hopes it will become a moving billboard as it moves students and staff across campus to promote the accessibility and convenience of solar power.

To read the full article, please visit: http://whnt.com/2015/07/08/uah-students-install-solar-panel-to-school-golf-cart/

Avion Solutions Solar Ribbon Cutting

Avion Solutions Solar Array

Avion Solutions, a Huntsville-based company that specializes in aviation and engineering within Army Aviation, recently unveiled their new 50 kilowatt solar array. During the Avion Solutions solar ribbon-cutting ceremony, Randy Buckner, the Director of Research and Development was quick to point out that this was not the first step they’ve taken to reduce their energy use. Whether you are seeking energy efficiency in a home or a commercial facility, the first steps are in reducing energy use and making the overall facility more energy-efficient. Only after that is complete do you install something like a solar array.

Under Buckner’s leadership Avion has taken many steps to cut their energy consumption. When Avion was first entered their data in ENERGY STAR’s Portfolio Manager, the company’s facilities only received a score of 2 out of 100! Buckner set his sights on changing that and by making just simple small changes within the building they were able to increase their score to 54.

Buckner said the first step was awareness. Knowing the tools they had available and how to use them properly was the first step. Utilizing the software that came with their HVAC system, Buckner was able to optimize the system, and determine that a few small upgrades would mean big payoff.

Heating and cooling was responsible for 54% of Avion’s energy use. Using the tools they already had available, Buckner discovered that they were cooling already cold air in the winter. The HVAC system was running constantly. Optimizing the system use netted Avion a 41.3% energy savings.

The next step was upgrading the outdoor lighting to LED. This simple retrofit saved Avion another 11.6% on their energy bills.

Avion’s most recent (and largest) energy improvement was the installation of a revenue-generating photovoltaic system. They sell all their energy directly TVA under their Green Power Providers program at a 40% profit margin from the going retail rate (~$0.10/kWh). This agreement will provide Avion with a net profit of over $111,000 over the course of 20 years.

Avion Solutions solar grid tied system

Future Plans

But, they aren’t finished yet! Avion still has more plans to improve their energy efficiency with the goal of ‘Net Zero Energy’! They are partnered with Energy Alabama in our North Alabama Buildings Performance Challenge to help other companies int the Huntsville/Madison County area reduce their energy usage too.

Buckner continues to work on awareness among the companies employees, showing them how small changes within their individual offices can net big payoffs. Where employees used to use space heaters to keep their office warm in the winter they are finding that they can now stay warm without it.

Avion already has automated lighting systems throughout the building, but Buckner has found that a small change in how those lights are set up could provide even more savings, while allowing individual employees more control over the level of lighting in their offices.

Avion has also placed an advanced order for a Tesla Power Wall which will use stored power to assist in reducing their overall usage during peak times. They also have plans to install electric car charging stations that will be available to Avion employees, customers, and neighbors.

This is obviously just the beginning for Avion as they lead the charge towards bringing Huntsville businesses to ‘Net Zero Energy’.

Learn more about the North Alabama Buildings Performance Challenge.